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South Jersey

Monday, February 25, 2002
Battleship holds Scout sleepover

Bunking aboard the USS New Jersey on Saturday are (from top) Daniel Salvato, Chris Cicero and John Caterin (rear), of Cherry Hill Boy Scout Troop 144. JOSE F. MORENO/Courier-Post
JOSE F. MORENO/Courier-Post
Bunking aboard the USS New Jersey on Saturday are (from top) Daniel Salvato, Chris Cicero and John Caterin (rear), of Cherry Hill Boy Scout Troop 144.

Courier-Post Staff

An orange ball of sunlight rose over the Delaware River at daybreak Sunday on the city's waterfront.

Flags on the battleship USS New Jersey fluttered in a gentle breeze. Dawn sunbeams reflected off the river and newly painted gray barrels of the ship's imposing 16-inch gun turrets.

The quiet broke at 6:30 a.m. with a shrill trumpet blaring reveille - a traditional wake-up call for sailors. But Sunday the call was for 40 young Scouts and their chaperons from Cherry Hill and Nyack, N.Y., who spent the night on the retired warship.

The newly opened Battleship New Jersey Memorial and Museum is holding sleepovers on Saturday nights to give the public a better glimpse of shipboard life and to help pay the estimated $5 million yearly maintenance cost for the nation's most decorated battleship.

"It's just amazing," said Bart Catarino, 15, of Cherry Hill, a member of Boy Scout Troop 144. "It's an armed ship to withstand the blows of war. It's so huge, and walking through here knowing this is where sailors lived and went through wars. It's living history."

The New York group, Cub Scout Pack 9 of Nyack, made the more than two-hour drive to Camden after pack leader Richard Zabel found out about the USS New Jersey and its sleepover encampment events.

Doug McCrae, an encampment coordinator, said the new overnight program is drawing interest.

"We get seven to 10 calls a day about the encampment. We like to have a minimum of 40 (people), but if a group has less than 40, we can schedule them with other smaller groups," he said.

Ship program director Jack Shaw said more berthing areas are being outfitted with fire safety equipment and emergency lighting so the ship will eventually be able to host 300 to 400 campers at a time.

The two groups slept in narrow bunks built three high in a heated area below the fantail of the ship, where the chief petty officers used to sleep. They also heard a safety lecture, stood in a chow line to get dinner and breakfast, ate in the crew's mess and had a two-hour nighttime tour.

Known also as the Big J and BB-62, the USS New Jersey was built at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard just down and across the Delaware River from Camden. It is one of four Iowa class U.S. battleships - the largest ever constructed. It fought in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as off Lebanon during the Beirut Crisis in 1983. It earned 19 campaign stars before being decommissioned for the final time in 1991.

During the tour, the Scouts navigated carefully up and down narrow ladders, around obstacles and through doorways and hatches of the 887-foot-long ship.

Most Scouts said their favorite part of the ship was the three 16-inch gun turrets that once hurled shells as far as 25 miles.

The best for Nyack Scout Gordon Gebert was the captain's in-port cabin, decorated in blue with wood-grain metal furniture and a bright red cloth on the table where the captain either dined alone or entertained important guests.

"It's pretty cool. It's like a hotel suite," Gordon said.

Several Scouts were picked for galley duty to help serve the pasta prepared by Andreotti's Viennese Cafe of Cherry Hill - the ship's encampment caterer.

Among the tour stops were the Tomahawk missile launchers, the bridges on the superstructure, the radio room and the combat engagement center.

At the snack bar, Cub Scout Morgan Ambler, 9, formerly of London bought an identification dog tag made for him on the spot by ship staffer Raphael Nogueras. It declared him a "captain" and Morgan pronounced his metal souvenir " really cool."

Steve Horner, 15, of Cherry Hill's Troop 144, said he enjoyed seeing how the 16-inch guns operated inside one of the three gun turrets. He also liked the view across the river from the upper decks.

"You can see all the Philadelphia skyline and most of the front of the boat from there," he said.

"Some of the questions we get from the kids are wild. Like one today who asked if he could be put into the brig," said docent supervisor Tony Pizzi of Ardmore, Pa. Pizzi is a Navy veteran who played the leader of an amphibious landing ship off Sardinia in the movie The Longest Day featuring John Wayne, Sean Connery and Henry Fonda.

After the tour, the Scouts could not wait to get below to their warm bunks, where there was much chatter even past the 11 p.m. playing of "Taps" signaling lights out.

At 8 a.m., the ship's bell rang eight times - another Navy tradition. It signaled not only the end of a four-hour watch on the ship but the conclusion of the encampment following a breakfast of bacon, egg and cheese and croissants, cereal, pastry and orange juice.

Pamela Lothrop, who made the trip from Nyack with 9-year- old twin sons Dean and David, was impressed by the experience.

"You can learn things from dates and facts in a book, but you can't realize the awesomeness and the scale of this ship," she said. "Until you see it, you really can't understand."

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